Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Back Translation

Edward Cook discusses a supposed example of Aramaic wordplay in Matthew 3:9, and approves of the principle that "you can't just translate the Greek backwards into Aramaic to find wordplays and such; you have to imagine how a translator would most likely have rendered any putative Aramaic original."

Back translation of isolated words or sentences is within the power of anyone having a smattering of both languages in question. What is rare, because it's so difficult, are back translations of extended passages or entire works in ancient languages, especially in verse.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) translated a passage from the Rudens of Plautus (lines 1235 to 1253) back into Greek verse. Here is his description of the experiment, from The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay, vol. 3:
The author passed a part of the summer and autumn of 1850 at Ventnor, in the Isle of Wight. He usually, when walking alone, had with him a book. On one occasion, as he was loitering in the landslip near Bonchurch, reading the Rudens of Plautus, it struck him that it might be an interesting experiment to attempt to produce something which might be supposed to resemble passages in the lost Greek drama of Diphilus, from which the Rudens appears to have been taken. He selected one passage in the Rudens, of which he then made the following version, which he afterwards copied out at the request of a friend to whom he had repeated it.
How few scholars today would be capable of such a feat!

I don't know how to enter Greek letters, accents, and breathings with Blogger, and I don't have Macaulay's book. Below I've reproduced from the online Gutenberg edition of Macaulay both the Plautine text in Latin and the transliterated Greek version. I made two changes in the transliterated Greek (larnax = coffer instead of Gutenberg's impossible larvax, and ge instead of ye), and there may be other mistakes I missed. But first I've supplied an English translation of the Latin passage, by Cleveland K. Chase.

DAEMONES: O Gripus, Gripus, we find many pitfalls in this life, and traps to ensnare us; and the bait is so cunningly placed, that while in our greed we reach for it, we are caught. When a man is very careful, and clever, he may enjoy for a long time that which is honestly his. But this appears to be plunder that will soon be plundered from you again, wherein you lose more than you get. Shall I conceal what you have brought here, when I know it belongs to another? Your master will never do that. The wise man will always find it best to have no part in another's wrong. I don't care for wealth gained by deception.

GRIPUS: I've often gone to the play and heard talk like that, with the audience applauding the words of wisdom. But when we went back home, no one acted on the advice he had heard.

O Gripe, Gripe, in aetate hominum plurimae
Fiunt transennae, ubi decipiuntur dolis;
Atque edepol in eas plerumque esca imponitur.
Quam si quis avidus pascit escam avariter,
Decipitur in transenna avaritia sua.
Ille, qui consulte, docte, atque astute cavet,
Diutine uti bene licet partum bene.
Mi istaec videtur praeda praedatum irier:
Ut cum majore dote abeat, quam advenerit.
Egone ut, quod ad me adlatum esse alienum sciam,
Celem? Minime istuc faciet noster Daemones.
Semper cavere hoc sapientes aequissimum est,
Ne conscii sint ipsi maleficiis suis.
Ego, mihi quum lusi, nil moror ullum lucrum.

Spectavi ego pridem Comicos ad istum modum
Sapienter dicta dicere, atque iis plaudier,
Quum illos sapientis mores monstrabant poplo;
Sed quum inde suam quisque ibant diversi domum,
Nullus erat illo pacto, ut illi jusserant.

O Gripe, Gripe, pleista pagidon schemata
idoi tis an pepegmen en thneton bio,
kai pleist ep autois deleath, on epithumia
oregomenos tis en kakois alisketai
ostis d apistei kai sophos phulattetai
kalos apolauei ton kalos peporismenon.
arpagma d ouch arpagm o larnax outosi,
all autos, oimai, mallon arpaxei tina.
tond andra kleptein tallotri--euphemei, talan
tauten ge me mainoito manian Daimones.
tode gar aei sophoisin eulabeteon,
me ti poth eauto tis adikema sunnoe
kerde d emoige panth osois euphrainomai,
kerdos d akerdes o toumon algunei kear.

kago men ede komikon akekoa
semnos legonton toiade, tous de theomenous
krotein, mataiois edomenous sophismasin
eith, os apelth ekastos oikad, oudeni
ouden paremeine ton kalos eiremenon.

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